Since 2009, U.S. drone strikes have killed between 64 and 116 civilians in areas outside of active hostilities, the Obama administration claimed in a report released on Friday afternoon, just hours before the start of the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
That number of civilian casualties is much lower than the assessments of independent groups, including the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which puts the number at between 380 and 801.
Indeed, said Jennifer Gibson of the international human rights group Reprieve: "The only thing those numbers tell us is that this Administration simply doesn’t know who it has killed."
The report (pdf) was the subject of advance criticism, with human rights advocates doubting that the government would offer accurate accounting or "provide the kind of specificity that would actually be useful to journalists, human rights researchers, and the general public," as the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer wrote this week.
Such predictions appear to have been prescient, as the New York Times reported:
The report named Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria as “areas of active hostilities” excluded from the policy. A senior administration official said tribal Pakistan — which the government treats as an extension of the Afghan battlefield in certain contexts — is not such an area; so casualties there are part of the official civilian death numbers.
It is an open secret that the majority of America’s drone strikes have taken place in tribal Pakistan as Central Intelligence Agency covert operations, which has meant that the administration’s periodic pledges to be more transparent about targeted killings have not been completely fulfilled.
[...] The administration also declined to break down its retroactive estimate of civilian death by year, a decision that permits it to avoid fights about how it addressed several well-known American airstrikes that generated accusations of dozens of civilian deaths — including one in Yemen in December 2009 and another in Pakistan in March 2011 that together would seem to surpass the low end of its range.
The names and stories of drone victims are also omitted from the report.
Bottom line, said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project in a press statement, "The American public can't be confident that the government is using lethal force legally and wisely with a disclosure that’s so limited as to be virtually meaningless."
President Barack Obama also on Friday signed an executive order requiring the annual release of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes—described by the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman as Obama's "favored tactic of war"—by future presidents.
Responding on social media, drone experts catalogued the ways in which the report fell short.
1. The count is lower than even that embraced by the most right-wing external observers. It cannot, on any reasonable view, be correct.
— Cori Crider (@cori_crider) July 1, 2016
# released in least useful possible way. No annual breakdown, location breakdown, let alone individual acknowledgment
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— KatherineHawkins (@Krhawkins5) July 1, 2016
Transparency is always a welcome step. But a new Exec. Order also normalizes Predator drones as a tool for a trigger-happy new President
— Alex Emmons (@AlexanderEmmons) July 1, 2016
— Steve Vladeck (@steve_vladeck) July 1, 2016
"Today's casualty data release and issuance of the executive order is a concrete step in the right direction, but more information is still needed for the public to meaningfully evaluate the lawfulness and effectiveness of the targeted killing program," said Human Rights First's Rita Siemion.
"For data on the number of non-combatant deaths to be meaningful, the administration should clarify how it classifies individuals as combatants, name the armed groups those classified as combatants are alleged to be members of, specify the legal basis for using lethal force, and provide strike locations and dates," she added.
And while Friday's revelations may mark Obama "starting to dismantle his own dangerous legacy," as Amnesty International's Naureen Shah put it in an op-ed at the Guardian, "the drone data could be completely misleading—and provide a veneer of legitimacy to unlawful killings."
The drone numbers could also wrongly obscure how entrenched and systematic impunity has become. The CIA, an agency with an extremely poor record of accountability to the public, is still conducting strikes. Indeed, it is remarkable that on the heels of its abusive program of torture and secret detention under former president Bush, the CIA was entrusted with the authority to conduct hundreds of drone strikes, killing thousands of people. Its continued role is likely one reason we aren’t getting fuller answers to our questions about drones.
Today’s disclosures aren’t enough to guard against future abuse by the CIA or other government agencies. Congress, while welcoming the transparency, should scrutinize the drone casualty numbers. And the drone data should not be the government’s last word on the impact of drone strikes: it should acknowledge, apologize and compensate civilian victims.
The Obama administration's assessment comes just one day after Reprieve released a report exposing the U.S. government's pattern of lying about the human toll of its aerial bombing campaign.
— Cian Westmoreland (@CianMW) July 1, 2016